Prometheus had an unreasonably high bar to vault. It had to work as a prequel to one of the most successful and revered sci-fi movies ever. It was directed by Ridley Scott, who produced Alien and another of the most successful and revered sci-fi movies ever. And in the 33 years since Alien premiered, Hollywood’s special effects capabilities have evolved beyond all ken, along with audience’s expectations of what makes for an exciting and engaging interface.
Even cutting it a bit of slack for these massive challenges, it was quite a letdown for its ofttimes inexplicable plot, wan characters, science-iness, and getting so caught up in its own grandoise themes it forgot about being a movie. But here at scifiinterfaces.com, reviews must be of interfaces, and to that end I’ll bypass much of these script objections, to focus in on the tech.
Sci: D+ (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?
I’ll go out on a prediction limb and say that 50 years in the future is, given Moore’s Law, enough time to account for much of the human technology we see in the film. Artificial intelligence and genetics are hot areas of research and might even get to David levels of cyborg in five decades.There are some physics questions around free-floating volumetric projections, but that’s enough of a sci-fi trope to get grandfathered along.
The alien interfaces are of course meant to be vastly superior to our own, and so get a special pass. But even still, the glowing pollen displays are conceivable and are used consistently. You can imagine the touch walls and energy-arc interfaces. The in-your-face alien flight controls have some ergonomic sense to them.
But these are interrupted by frequent speed bumps of design. Access panels across Prometheus shift position, layout, and security requirements at almost every door. 3D maps can be transmitted through a mountain to the ship but not to the nearby people who can use it most. A science ship has a single button that throws it into ramming mode, replete with an audio countdown. These dissolve credulity.
Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
Of our categories, this is where Prometheus’ interfaces shine the most. For example, the choice of materials for the alien interfaces are not only beautiful, but offer a great deal of affordance for users and audiences alike. And of course the visual designs of the interfaces is luscious. As a whole they are unique, engaging, and at times a spectacular pageant for the eyes.
The interaction design functions admirably for the narrative as well. The ship keeps its steward uninformed in order to tell the audience what’s happening dramatically. The audio syringe reinforces the body horror of assaultive medicine. The escape pod’s crimes against usability make sense to build tension around Vicker’s escape. The stupid, stupid MedPod fulfills its role of building Snakes on a Plane claustrophobia. (Perhaps this is a clue to the reason the film fails in terms of our other categories: It treats its technology solely as narrative tools.)
If they didn’t shirk believability so badly, the interfaces would get full marks for narrative.
Interfaces: D- (1 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
I want to call attention to the film’s brilliant interfaces first. The alien astrometrics sit perfectly between passive and active sensemaking modes. The decontamination gesture is simple and memorable. The visual design of the on-ship interfaces is exquisite in its look and feel. The language learning interface combines the best of human- and computer-based teaching techniques. Each of these embodies some forward-looking technological ideas with solid interaction design.
These occur in a movie with a ship that pointlessly withholds crucial mission information until the last possible minute. Environmental suits that blind its wearers. A decontamination system in the middle of the sterile zone. A 3D display style that confounds our mind’s ability to understand shape. A mysogynist MedPod designed by Marquis de Sade Industries. Door panels whose only function is to torture the crew with pointless tedium. Mapping tech that does not display the map to its users. Escape pods that hinder escape.
The movie’s transgressions against basic interaction design principles drag its brilliant moments way, way down. Take great care when looking at the film’s interfaces for lessons for your own real world design.
Final Grade C- (5 of 12), MATINEE
Related lessons from the book
- The HYPSP>S020 interface might have instead augmented the periphery of vision, as described in Chapter 8, Augmented Reality.
- The volumteric maps conform to the wireframe Pepper’s Ghost style, as described in Chapter 4.
- The Flight Controls remind us of the importance of grouping controls, as described in Chapter 2.
- The MedPod forgets a number of the lessons (show waveforms, be useful) in Chapter 12, which is all about medical technology.
- David reminds us why Anthropomorphism (Chapter 9) is comfortable. When asked why he needs to wear a helmet, he replies, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear the suit, it would defeat the purpose.”